When Animal Trainers Pursue a New Career

All Good Things Must Come To An End

Caring and improving the lives of animals is one of the great privileges of being alive. Those lucky enough to land an internship or enter the field of animal care, rescue, rehabilitation, and release are some of the luckiest people in the world.

However, each year many animal care specialists leave the field entirely. They move on to work with animals in a new capacity, start their own businesses, change careers altogether, or decide to focus more on their human family.

What is it like leaving something you are so passionate about and switching careers during the later part of your life? How does the experience of working with animals help you during this change?

We are exploring the answers to these questions and a lot more in today’s post.

You will hear from Shauna Z, a seasoned marine mammal trainer who is now working as a successful dating coach. You will hear from Kacey Littman and Lindsey Gunderson, a former teacher of dolphins and a current teacher of children. You will hear from Amber Hawk and Mary Tully who said goodbye to killer whales and dolphins and now run successful dog training companies. You will also hear from Nick Rubino who runs two businesses after leaving his more than 10-year career as an animal trainer.

You’ll Also Hear From Kyle Kittleson (briefly)

I left SeaWorld in 2013 and moved to Los Angeles to pursue my career in television. My dream is to teach millions of people about the beauty of animals while providing information and insight on how they can have better relationships with their pets. Although I still work with animals today, leaving those animals I had developed a relationship with was difficult. However, my decision to leave has already paid off and I am now able to have a greater positive impact on more animals and people.

Life After Animals

Shauna Z – Dating Coach

My name Shauna. I’m a dating and relationship coach who helps people meet, date, and end up in the type of relationship they desire.

former animal trainer

Shauna Z | Dating Coach

Helping people find love and navigate through the modern dating world is seriously my dream job. Well… actually, it’s my second dream job. I worked my first dream job for over twelve years. Prior to utilizing my psychology degree with humans, I put it to use with killer whales, dolphins, pilot whales, sea lions, and more at SeaWorld.

When I first tell people about my past career as a trainer at SeaWorld, I often hear things such as, “Oh what a fun job,” or “So you used to play with animals all day.” That’s true… kind of… but there’s so much more.

At first glance, my past career and my present career might seem like they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. In my life after dolphins and whales, I’m not only thankful for the amazing experiences I’ve had with animals…. I’m also thankful for the skills I developed and use to run my own business.

former dolphin trainer

Shauna poolside with her dolphin crew!

Here are the top 5 skills I’ve learned from being a marine mammal trainer that I still use today.

1. Great Work Ethic

Running my own business isn’t easy. I had no idea the amount of work and learning needed to launch shaunaz.com. Here’s what I did know: I’ll do whatever it takes to succeed.

This is the attitude that makes you successful in the animal training world. When you take that swim test: do whatever it takes to succeed. When you realize your first year as a trainer is in the fish house: do whatever it takes to succeed. When you’re tired but a whale’s thirty-pound bucket needs to be taken backstage: do whatever it takes to succeed.

2. Celebrate Small Steps with a Larger Goal in Mind

It’s incredibly important to always have a larger goal in mind but celebrate accomplishing each step along the way. When training a more complex behavior (ex: front flip, voluntary blood draw, roman ride, etc) it could take up to two years. Great animal trainers realize the big picture of behavior. They then take the time and necessary steps towards the end goal. Along the way, it’s important (for the animal and the trainers) to celebrate each small step accomplished.

In my business, I have some pretty large goals and ambitions. I often times think back to all the little steps that make a difference when training new behaviors and apply this to myself.

3. Public Speaking

After speaking from a script and ad-libbing to an audience of 6,000 at Shamu Stadium, I’m extremely comfortable speaking to an audience about dating.

Public speaking is a skill set that is beneficial no matter what your career choice is. Nothing will help you develop this skill set more than practicing it several times a day and receiving feedback from stage managers.

4. Empathy

The definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” In other words, it’s the ability to put yourself in another person’s —or animal’s— situation to understand their point of view.

Great animal trainers have an amazing ability to look at a situation from the animal’s point of view. Training isn’t about “making” the animal do what you want them to do. Training is about “getting” the animal to voluntarily do what you’re teaching them to do. Great animal trainers constantly try to see how a situation could be perceived from an animal’s point of view. They’re extremely willing to re-evaluate their approach based on an animal’s progress: Is the prompt confusing? Did we take the correct approximation? Is there proactive inhibition? Is the reinforcement motivating enough?

Learning to look at things predominately from another’s point of view vs my initial perception allows me to connect deeply with clients. For twelve years I was taught to empathize with another’s experience and be flexible with my responses.

5. Go After Your Dreams

When I first decided I wanted to be an animal trainer, it seemed nearly impossible. Honestly: at that time I was afraid to swim to the bottom of a 10ft pool! (FYI: in my first swim test I had to swim to the bottom of a 26ft pool!). How would I ever become the girl being thrown in the air and hugging whales?

I made the decision I was going to make it happen. Due to my hard work and dedication, I made my dream come true. When each step seemed like a roadblock, I pushed through.

I knew that if one dream job could come true, so could my dream job of helping people find love. I decided to go for my dream of owning my own business. When I encounter a roadblock, I figure out a way to push through.

Go after your dreams! I’m so incredibly thankful for the way being a marine mammal trainer has forever shaped my life. I can’t wait to see how it will shape yours too.

Kacey Littman – High School Teacher

Teaching children is the same as teaching marine mammals. Both species are able to talk back to you; you just have to learn to decipher their language.

seal trainer

Kacey stealing a kiss from a sea lion.

sea lion trainer

Kacey showing off with her sea lion pals!

I was a marine mammal trainer for 2 years. I trained and cared for Atlantic and Pacific Bottlenose dolphins, Humbolt penguins, California sea lions, harbor seals and Hawaiian monk seals. Now I will be starting my third year teaching 9th and 10th graders biology. Differences? Not as many as you think.

I always knew I wanted to do one of two things: work with marine mammals or teach biology. Lucky me I’ve gotten to do both.

I can honestly tell you that the two jobs are more alike than different. Sure, I don’t have to wake up at 5:00 am to prep fish for my students, but I do wake up that early to get ready for the school day. My students are required to wear clothes when I am working with them while my former “students” enjoyed swimming around in their birthday suits. Those differences are obviously huge but I approach my school day the same way I used to approach my day as a marine mammal trainer.

I set goals and objectives on the content my students are learning just like I set goals and objectives for the animals in their day-to-day activities.

SWBAT (Students Will Be Able To…) define the role of ribosomes in the production of proteins.

DWBAT (Dolphins Will Be Able To…) station on a circular target for 30 seconds when directed.

See? Not much difference between the two objectives. (At least in my eyes)

Leaving marine mammal training was an easy decision. I could tell I needed to go. I won’t go into details as to why but it is important to know that I knew it was time. If you are not 110% sure you are done then you shouldn’t leave it. Does that mean it didn’t kill me to look at all my trainer friends and their animal pictures they posted every day on Facebook? No. It crushed me. It crushed my heart. I missed those cute, wet noses, feathery wings and blowholes spraying chuff in my face at gale force speeds.

But I was done. And I was better because of it. Getting my Masters of Education was a walk in the park compared to the longing I had to get back in the water with a sea lion. (P.S. – everyone loves dolphins, and they should, but sea lions are where it’s at. Period.)

I run my classroom the way we ran our day; a plan for the day with the understanding that anything can happen and you have to roll with the punches. Students need more time comprehending the content? We spent an extra period going over the information again. Sea lion is struggling with a salute? We go back to the basics and take it step-by-step. Patience is a virtue. In both professions. Believe me, I know.

Starting my first day of teaching solidified my decision as well as my belief that teaching humans is no different than teaching animals. After all, we are all animals, aren’t we?

Amber Hawk – Dog Training

I started working with animals when I was old enough to walk, by my own accord, I was taking home lost or stray animals almost every week so needless to say I eventually wanted to work with animals for real. I worked for SeaWorld of Orlando for 10 years. I wanted to work there because at the time they were the only company using only positive reinforcement while training and that is important to me.

killer whale trainer

I left SeaWorld in 2014 when my daughter was born because the hours were too much and I felt as if I never saw her. It turned out, being a stay-at-home mom was NOT my thing. I needed interaction with people who would actually talk back to me. So, I started my own dog training, walking, sitting business. Working at SeaWorld taught me a tremendous amount of things that have served me well in “the real world”.

animal training

I was always a hard worker but Seaworld was next level. EVERYONE who worked or works there are tirelessly committed to the care of the species they interact with. It’s actually quite funny: for several years, through tireless hours of the night, caring for newborn calves had prepared me for caring for my own daughter through the night. Seaworld not only taught me this but also a heightened level of observational skills, where now I can’t turn it off, which can be a bad thing (if you’re my husband and kids) or a good thing while training dogs and watching how they behave in different situations. On top of all this, it taught me an unfaltering loyalty not only for the amazing people I worked with but for the animals. Still to this day I hold both of them in the highest regard.

 

Nick Rubino – The Grocery Stork & Seastar Swim Academy

I have always been goal oriented. Working with marine mammals was my goal for as long as I can remember and I accomplished that!

Another goal of mine was to be my own boss. I started a side business delivering groceries to resort guests. TheGroceryStorkOrlando.com is successful and no doubt the world class customer service we provide is what people expect while on vacation down here. I asked myself if that was “enough” for me to leave my passion. The answer was “no”. After all, we don’t choose a career with animals because of the salary. I was a part of something so much bigger. Contributing to the greater good of the animals I took care of and inspiring thousands of people daily to care for our environment. I wanted to find something equally fulfilling as that cause and the answer was literally all around me. Water. My new focus and goal is drowning prevention.

dolphin trainer at SeaWorld

Rubino with some of his students!

I started Seastar Swim Academy just a couple months ago to provide swim lessons and water safety education. Part of my swim school is to provide free lessons to those in need. The funding for those lessons comes from a very familiar source, The Dawn Brancheau Foundation. Passion, goals, behavior and contributing to the community are all things I had at SeaWorld and seamlessly transitioned into my new career.

 

Mary Tully – Tully’s Dog Training

My career in animal training started when I was a child. Like many of us, I decided to be an animal trainer after visiting SeaWorld at age three. I started volunteering at an animal shelter in middle school, went to zoo camp at Busch Gardens and worked at a vet clinic when I was in high school. I landed a full-time, marine mammal training position at age 20. I very much enjoyed my time as a marine mammal trainer. I loved the physicality of the job, I loved being in the water, and of course, I really loved the animals. Ultimately, I decided to make a change and start my own business for reasons having to do primarily with finances.

Dolphin Trainer

Mary Tully with one of her dolphin friends.

This industry, as a whole, does not make having any sort of quality of life easy. From what I’ve gathered, it used to be a bit easier to “make it” in this industry than it is now. In my experience, the combined low pay with long hours and little time off, after 6 years, burnt me out. I guess you could say, I couldn’t hack it! To be fair, I entered the workforce in 2008, the year the recession started. Many businesses were struggling to stay open. Because of that I was laid off once, and once I was able to get another job, raises weren’t being handed out and it felt like it would be next to impossible to work my way up. I looked around at different curators, team leads, and mentors, people who were “above” me, and I didn’t feel like my future plans aligned with the trajectory of a career working at a facility. After a lot of struggle, I knew I had to leave. It was NOT an easy choice to make, but ultimately the right one for me.

Starting my own dog training business has been a lot of work! But it hasn’t really felt like work, most of the time. My time in the animal training industry did a lot to prepare me for training dogs. However, there has been a lot to learn about running a business and managing clients. I think the most important thing I’ve taken away is how hard animal trainers work! I’ve tried my best to set up a company that really values the trainers and makes them feel important, because they are!

My life as a business owner has more balance and less extreme tan lines. Mainly, I feel lucky to have a kickass team of trainers that I work with. I have a new mission in life. Conservation education used to be my main focus. Now, the goal is to spread the science-based training techniques I learned working marine mammals, into the dog world! It doesn’t give me quite the adrenaline rush, but it is something that I’ve become very passionate about.

My advice to young marine mammal training hopefuls would be this. Life is long and full of surprises. Your “dream job” may not be your forever job, and that is ok. It may be! But it may not be. Be prepared for your goals in life to shift. Be open to those curves in the road. I never thought I would leave the marine mammal training world, and who knows, maybe I’ll be trying to get back in one day! You just have to be open to whatever life brings you. As they say, the only thing in life that is constant, is change itself. It sounds generic, but it’s true!!!

 

Lindsey Gunderson – Teacher & Mother

It wasn’t just a Dream!

By Lindsey Gunderson

For 5 years I woke up everyday in beautiful Hawaii and got to go to work and train dolphins, sea lions, Hawaiian Monk Seals and penguins. I began with the well known internship and I moved up to being a lead trainer in a show area. I loved the challenges of how to manage staff resources and problem solving behavior. It was my dream job and an amazing experience that I wouldn’t give up for anything. However, in the past 6 years since I left the field I have done some equally amazing things. I thought I would train forever but the physical demands of the job and the limitations to work near my family eventually lead me in a new direction.

marine-animal-trainer

For the past 3 years I have been living back in my hometown and a mom to two of the best little boys I could have imagined. They keep me on my toes! I could compare it to working two animals in the water during a show while another one cruises! Your senses are on high alert all the time! I am also in my third year teaching 7th grade science which is equally chaotic, to say the least. I know that my experiences training marine mammals have benefited me in my new career. A significant difference is in my classroom or at home with my kids I can’t step back and reevaluate the situation and come up with a new plan of attack when things aren’t working. I have to be “show ready” all the time. Always have a backup in mind and keep my cool through seeming catastrophes.

Somedays I long to go back to having that uniform and being able to go an entire day without speaking more the a few words at a time to another human! I choose animals for a reason after all! I miss the excitement that my animals had when we picked up and the creative fun I used to have working with them and making their day. Then I hear “mommy I need you” or a student runs in a says “I finally get it” and I remember that this life I pretty great too!!

marine-mammal-trainer

Many of the tools I learned training animals have brought me perspective in the classroom and at home with my kids, especially rewarding the positive. A favorite saying I have picked up is you can’t expect what you don’t teach, that goes for animals and kids equally. It is not for everyone but for me I needed to leave my fairytale world of marine life in order to create my family that I longed for. I needed to be back to my family in order for that to feel complete. As I teach my students though they see that there really is a whole world out there that they can go see even if we are in a little farm town in the middle of nowhere! The first year was probably the hardest, I still had many friends who posted pictures of the animals I love. It is hard now in another way, I no longer have many connections to that old life to keep me updated on how those animals are doing and I still miss them wholeheartedly. All told I wouldn’t change any of it.

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